Hatchbacks are unpopular in the U.S. and muscle cars are struggling. Too bad. Dodge's Caliber SRT-4 is a lot of fun
The '08 Dodge Caliber SRT-4 is a riot to drive. It's almost impossible not to, er … test the limits of legality as soon as you get behind the wheel.
The SRT-4 is a version of Chrysler's Dodge Caliber hatchback that has been souped-up by Chrysler's Street Racing & Technology (SRT) group. It's powered by a specially machined version of the company's 2.4-liter, 285-hp World Turbo four-cylinder engine—developed with Mitsubishi Motors (MMTOF) and Hyundai (HYMZY)—that generates 265 lb-ft of torque. That's a lot of oomph to put under the hood of a compact car that only weighs 3,189 lb.
In creating the SRT-4, the SRT group also modified the Caliber in numerous ways, upgrading the brakes, adding 19-in. forged wheels, lowering the suspension, and giving the car a new front fascia and hood scoop up front and a spoiler in back. The only available transmission is a sporty, six-speed stick shift.
The SRT-4 mainly appeals to young males on a tight budget. According to the Power Information Network (PIN), 81% of SRT-4 buyers so far this year have been men, and 73% of all buyers finance their purchase (as opposed to leasing or paying cash). Nearly half of all buyers have negative equity in the vehicle, an indication they aren't putting much money down. The average buyer's age is 39, and my guess is that the only reason it's over 30 is that a lot of parents are helping finance the purchase.
This isn't a refined vehicle. Torque-steer—which causes a front-wheel drive car with a powerful engine to pull to one side or another during fast acceleration—makes keeping the SRT-4 on a straight line when you punch the gas like keeping a skittish horse on a narrow trail. Front/rear weight distribution is a relatively unequal 58/42, so the car feels a little unstable when you throw it into a curve. Exterior fit and finish in my test car were sloppy. The gaps around the doors, hood, and rear hatch are much wider than they should be (and noticeably wider than in the Kia (KIMTY) Optima sedan I test-drove the same week). That's probably one reason the coefficient of drag (a measure of how slippery a car's exterior is) is a relatively high 0.396. Even, say, a Toyota (TM) Yaris has a drag coefficient of 0.29.
But, boy, you can forgive a lot of faults in a car that's as much fun as the SRT-4 is, especially when it comes at such a bargain price. The SRT-4 starts at just $23,930, and the average selling price so far this year has been $24,660, according to PIN. Add $1,395 for a navigation system and a six-CD player; $1,190 for an enhanced "Livin' Loud" sound system; $795 for a power sunroof; $250 for supplemental front side air bags (a major bargain); $400 for polished aluminum 19-in. wheels; and $150 for an "Inferno red" paint job.
The SRT-4 earned the top Five Star rating for front and side collisions from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and a Four Star rating for risk of rollover. Fuel economy, not surprisingly, is lower than in a regular Caliber, but it isn't bad, considering the car's performance orientation. The SRT-4 is rated to get 21 miles-per-gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway; in 177 miles of mixed, very hard driving, I got 20 mpg. The SRT-4 does better than both of its main competitors, the Subaru Impreza WRX (rated at 19 mpg/24 mpg) and the Mazdaspeed3 (18 mpg/26 mpg).
Behind the Wheel
The SRT-4 is essentially a Detroit muscle car packed into a compact suburban station wagon. It jumps from 0 to 60 in a tad more than six seconds (vs. north of 10 seconds for the regular Caliber), matching the '08 Mazdaspeed3 and besting the Subaru WRX. The SRT-4 is infinitely more fun to drive than the regular Caliber, especially the regular Caliber equipped with Chrysler's quirky continuously variable automatic transmission. Among all the other upgrades, the manual transmission in the SRT-4 is sportier and has shorter shift throws than the one available in the regular Caliber.
The SRT-4 is a great car to take out to the track, or to put through its paces on an isolated country road. One small but wonderful feature available in the car's trip computer is something Chrysler describes as a reconfigurable display (RCD) that allows the driver to measure the car's time in accelerating from 0 to 60, and over one-eighth and one-quarter of a mile. You can also measure braking distance and even lateral and longitudinal G-forces generated during hard driving. The fun thing about the RCD is that you can read up on the SRT-4's stats in magazines such as Car and Driver and Motor Trend, and then go out and try to match them. I had a blast doing so.
Just keeping the SRT-4 under control is part of the challenge of driving it. Torque steer is almost as great as in a Mazdaspeed3 and the car really jerks to the left or right when you punch the gas. By other measures, though, the SRT-4 handles well. For instance, the big brakes bring the car to a full stop from 60 mph in around 125 ft. (I measured it several times in the trip computer). The SRT-4's suspension is stiff and sporty, and gives you a definite feeling of connection to the road.
The SRT-4's interior has numerous upgrades to differentiate it from a regular Caliber. The pedals are clad in rubber-studded aluminum, and the gearshift lever is topped with chrome. The instrument panel is racing-inspired. Among other things, the tachometer (rather than the speedometer) is the biggest, most central gauge. The special sports seats have deep side bolsters to hold you in place during fast-cornering.
A powerful, stick-shift car like this can be annoying to drive under stop-and-go conditions, but the SRT-4 isn't totally impractical. In day-to-day driving, I found the driver's seat extremely supportive and comfortable. The bench-style rear seats are firm and (to me, at least) comfortable. Unless you're unusually tall, there's plenty of head, foot, and knee room in back. The rear seats fold down in a 60/40 pattern, creating a large hauling space. The SRT-4 even has the same drinks-cooler (located above the glove box) that comes in the regular Caliber. It uses the car's air conditioning system to keep up to four one-liter bottles cool (though not genuinely cold).
(Note: One thing I hated about the regular Caliber I test-drove is the unbearable torrent of sound created when you rolled down the rear windows. Most cars have this problem to some degree, but it was worse in the regular Caliber than in any other car I have test-driven. For whatever reason, the problem was much diminished in the SRT-4 I test-drove.)
Buy it or Bag It?
The SRT-4 is aimed at young buyers who want a performance-oriented vehicle at a budget price. If you want an automatic transmission and/or maximum fuel economy, it isn't for you. It also isn't available with four-wheel drive.
The SRT-4's most direct competitor is probably the Mazdaspeed3, which is slightly less expensive. The Speed3's average selling price is $23,652, about a grand less than the SRT-4's average of $24,660, according to PIN (which, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)
An even cheaper, youth- and performance-oriented alternative model to consider is General Motors' (GM) Chevy Cobalt SS, which has an average price of $22,541, according to PIN. If you want all-wheel drive, check out the Subaru WRX. The WRX's average price, however, is $28,531, almost four grand more than the SRT-4.
At the very least, be sure to test-drive the Mazdaspeed3 before buying an SRT-4. They're both front-wheel drive, performance-oriented hatchbacks with a similar major flaw: excessive torque steer. Both of them are also a gas to drive.
Click here to see more of the 2008 Dodge Caliber SRT-4.